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Blog of Sarah McIntyre, children's book writer & illustrator
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1. designing seawigs

Big congratulations to Lucy Yewman, age 6, for winning Moontrug's top prize for describing and drawing her own Seawig! This one's a corker! Keep an eye on Moontrug's website as she's always running good competitions.

I just remembered, for a dinner at the Bologna Book Fair last year, I designed this Draw-Your-Own-Seawig sheet for all the adults to draw at the table. But I can't remember if I posted it on my blog, so here it is, if you'd like to give Cliff a Seawig! You'll make this Rambling Isle very happy. WHAT can you pile on his head? Use drawing, magazine collage, whatever you like! Download the PDF here. And do tweet me your results (I'm @jabberworks) or post them on my Facebook Author page, I'd love to see them!)

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2. top tip for putting together a picture book

My desk is a sea of paper, so yesterday I tried to tackle some of the mess and found these thumbnail roughs for You Can't Scare a Princess!, my picture book with Gillian Rogerson. Thumbnail roughs are called that because often they're very small, just a doodle that lets my editor and art director know how I plan to lay out the page before I draw a more complicated full-size rough in pencil.

If you know the book, you'll see that, except for pages 20-21 (the treasure digging scene), I pretty much followed these layouts in the final artwork.

Top tip: the grid here looks a bit dull, but if you've ever tried to get a picture book published, you'll know this template is solid gold. It takes most aspiring writers and illustrators ages to figure out this basic layout. If you go into a shop and count picture book pages, they'll vary slightly, which is confusing. That's because publishers have a little leeway with how they engineer the endpapers, so you might get some extra pages. But if you want to get published, this is the most cost-efficient way of cutting one big sheet of paper into a book, so an editor will be far, far more interested in your book if you work to this format.

In some ways, it can make your job easier, because you think Here's the set number of pages I have; how am I going to fill them? I often print out the grid and write the story right into it. Don't forget, you'll need a title page and a page for all that small-print information, so the words in your story may not really start going until page 6.

Often a paperback will have two more pages than the hardcover version because the endpapers aren't glued down to the covers. Here's There's a Shark in the Bath; you can see the paperback, top, has an extra page. In the hardcover version, bottom, this page would be glued down to the cover board, which holds the pages into the book.

You don't have to stick to the template exactly, with the title page on page 5. Sometimes people put the small-print information at the end of the book, and often the story starts right in the front endpapers, not after the title page. (I like to use the endpapers to set the scene for the book.) But if you stray from this format, it's good to have a well-thought-out reason why you've done it. Board books are usually shorter than this, since the pages are thicker. If you want to see the variations, get yourself down to your local bookshop or library and start counting pages.

Some useful terms:

Double-page spread: When you open a book and two pages look up at you, this is a double-page spread. You can either have a picture or pictures on each page, or you can have one big picture spanning both pages. These spreads can be very effective; think about the size of a child. When they're reading or being read to, the picture wraps around them, plunging them into the world you've made.

Gutter: This is the middle of the book, where the pages come together. Try not to put any very important things here, such as eyes, or text, because they might disappear down the gap.

Endpapers: the pages holding the book into its cover. These might be made of a single-coloured piece of paper with nothing printed on it (the cheapest method), decorated with pictures in one colour of ink (mid-price) or full colour (the most expensive).

Pagination: Anything to do with pages. Traditionally in a 32-page picture book, the front cover is page 1. Left-hand pages are always even-numbered, right-hand pages always odd-numbered.

Bleed: When you do the final artwork, you'll slightly need to extend the edges of the picture (let it 'bleed') if you're doing a picture that goes right to the edge of the page. So paint your picture a little longer and wider than the page itself, or if you're laying out the page digitally, give extra room around the edges. Talk with your designer; the bleed will be anything from 5mm - 15mm each side. This is in case the printer doesn't cut the paper exactly right, there won't be white bits showing on the edges of the pages. Or if there's a problem fitting text, your designer will have a bit of wiggle room to move things around. (I must confess that this term made me smile while I was working on the shark book.)

Right, hope that might be helpful for a few people! I wish I'd been given the 32-page template when I first started making books; it would have saved me a lot of time. You can find a few more tips over on the FAQ section of my website.

Other news: this year's Manchester Children's Book Festival is all Sea Monkeys! I was thrilled when they asked us to give the entire festival a Seawigs theme. If you're near Manchester on Sat, 28 July, do drop by, learn how to draw your own Sea Monkey and have us sign and draw in your book! (Booking details here).

Last thing: one of my university friends posted this video on her Facebook page (via Sploid) and it is so, so wonderful. It follows the adventure of two elderly ladies, An and Ria, as they take go on their very first flight. One of them has a laugh that's so contagious, I was laughing out loud while I was watching it.

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3. sea monkeys invade worth abbey

This weekend the Federation of Children's Book Group conference had an infestation! Two Oxford University Press publicists, both named Charlotte, both have mothers who can knit and both mothers made wonderfully cheeky Sea Monkeys. Here's Charlotte Armstrong, with the Sea Monkey who kept cracking jokes, asking how to get this lady off its bum.

We had several people ask where they could get a Sea Monkey, and the answer is... you can knit one yourself! Or find a friend who can! Free pattern on my website, developed by my studio mate Deadly Knitshade; do click over if you want your very own Sea Monkey.

When Philip Reeve and I first started doing Oliver and the Seawigs events, we focused more on how we met, and decided to start writing books together. But these days we're having more fun talking about the actual story. Here we are, enacting the scene when Mr and Mrs Crisp meet at the top of Mt Everest.

Photo tweeted by @FCBGNews

Now I saw this 'Going Down' advice in last Saturday's Guardian, and I'm setting out to prove them wrong.

Anyone can rock glasses and a frock if they can draw, they're wearing a squid on their head and playing a ukulele. True fact.

One of the great things about the conference was getting to hear other authors give presentations. Here's a drawing I did in pen of illustrator and writer Cressida Cowell, talking with Caroline Horn about her book series, How to Train Your Dragon.

Cressida also talked about having big films made of her stories, and how she was offered the chance to write the screenplay, but turned it down so she could focus on her books. You might have seen the first film already, and here's the trailer for the second film, coming out this summer:

Another fascinating thing was listening to her talk about her childhood holidays on an uninhabited island in Scotland, where they were able to run completely wild and encounter weird and wonderful wildlife:

The next day, after our event, Philip and I got to hear writer Meg Rosoff talk about writing, about how our brains are a sort of colander; we experience lots of things, and most of the things we forget. But some of the things mash down inside and begin to form something as they liquify and ferment, and start to create something new. She said she took comfort, years back, in something Philip said about writing books and throwing many stories away before hitting on the one he's happy with; she'd struggled with periods where she just couldn't get a book to work. But looking back, she'd realise that this time was important, is was when the story she really wanted to tell was quietly arranging itself in the back of her head. I should add that Meg also has a recent film adaptation of her book, How I Live Now, which I definitely want to see:

I didn't manage to get a photo of Meg, and the drawing didn't really turn out (I drew a colander on her head and it didn't look like her at all.) But I bought a copy of her latest book, Picture Me Gone, which I'm very much looking forward to reading. Marilyn Brocklehurst was running a great bookshop on site, so I also picked up a copy of Alex Milway's brand-new Pigsticks & Harold illustrated book, which is a lovely cross between a chapter book, picture book and comic. And Letters to Klaus, which is going out of print and contains a lovely gallery of illustrated envelopes by Satoshi Kitamura, David McKee and others. (You can have a peek at it over on Booktrust's website.)

Thanks so much to FCBG for inviting Philip and me, to Louise Stothard and Damian Kelleher for introducing us, to Marilyn Brocklenhurst for selling our books, to Hattie Bayly and Charlotte Armstrong from OUP for looking after us, to the monastery for yummy food (Worth Abbey's a gorgeous place; I'd wish I'd had more time to explore), and to everyone who made our visit so much fun!

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4. sightings in the wild

I've been starting up a new picture book here and trying to meet some tight deadlines, so I haven't had a chance to visit this year's London Book Fair. But I was thrilled when writer Jeff Norton tweeted the first sighting of a Cakes in Space bag! (I don't even have mine yet! But I think it's what that little red slip from the Royal Mail must be about; it's been languishing in the banana bowl for a couple days.)

And here's a lovely Sea Monkey Vampire from Sarah Yewman drawn by Lucy, age 6. I tweeted back that this character really needs its own story, and my Oliver and the Seawigs co-author Philip Reeve added, 'The tiny vampire sea monkey on Vampire Sea Monkey's staff also needs its own story'. So we'll see if this happens...

News from Philip, the book cover for the third book in the GOBLINS trilogy has just been released! These books are terrific, a real spin on the way Tolkien portrayed goblins as all bad, with lots of funny bits, although I cried at one part in one of the books. (But I won't tell you which - spoiler!). Goblin Quest launches with Scholastic UK on the 5th of June, with decorative illustrations scattered throughout, by David Semple. Here's the Goblins website.

One of my favourite things that happens on the Internet is when the Goblins start blogging, and they're back!


Also, Reeve & Son have been making a COOKING video:

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5. playing with pens

Here's today's morning doodle, taking a line for a walk (inspired by Paul Klee and Jon Burgerman).

News: Random House in the USA sent me a copy of the proof for the US edition of Oliver and the Seawigs. I'm thrilled it's coming out in America! I wondered if they'd make lots of changes, but it looks pretty much the same, but with 'Mum' changed to 'Mom', and they've given it a series name of 'Not-So-Impossible Tales'. Here's a link to the publisher page; if you live in America or have friends there, it would be awesome if you could spread the word! :)

And hey, monster making in The Guardian with my fab friend and JAMPIRES co-author David O'Connell! Discover ten tips for drawing your own monster, and if you're aged between 3 - 13, you can enter their monster competition!

...Read more here!

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6. hedgehog face

Look, it's a no-makeup selfie!

Ha ha, the Internet is just SO INSPIRING. Lookit you, Pikachu...

Did you see that the Phoenix Fest tickets have just gone on sale? I'm not leading a workshop this year, but I did last year and it was BRILLIANT. If you're anywhere within three hours of Oxford, I'd say get over there for this. Fab workshops by the likes of Gary Northfield, Jamie Smart and more... Saturday 3rd May 2014 at The Story Museum, Oxford! Booking details here.

Here's my write-up from last year, when it was the Oxford Children's Comics Festival.

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7. cambridge lit fest 2014

Cambridge was all yellow and daffodils this morning for the Cambridge Lit Fest! Here's my Oliver and the Seawigs co-author Philip Reeve with me and Children's Events co-ordinator Sabine Edwards.

I got a lot of compliments on my hat, so I thought I would share its humble origins in case you fancied owning one, too. (Also, the bucket handle made a rather fine matching choker necklace.)

Cambridge is such a gorgeous city, and a great place to swan about with a ukulele, wearing a sailor dress and a squid on one's head. Here are Reeve and me leading the Eep Parade:

The audience helped us come up with things to draw to build a Seawig for a Rambling Isle:

And we led everyone in drawing their own Sea Monkeys!

I was surprised at the signing session that not only had people drawn Sea Monkeys, but a couple kids had also drawn their own Rambling Isles. Cool!

The culinary highlight of the festival definitely had to be these Chelsea buns. Chelsea buns are usually nothing like American cinnamon rolls - usually drier, with less icing and cinnamon. And I miss American cinnamon rolls. But an American would call these cinnamon rolls and I can honestly say they are better than any I have ever tasted in the USA. People on Twitter let me know that they were made by Fitzbillies on Trumpington Street. I may just have to pay it a visit on my next trip.

One of the fun things about a literary festival is bumping into other writers and illustrators in the Green Room. (That's what festivals call their hospitality room, even if it is not green. I'm not quite sure why that is.) Here's writer Tracey Corderoy and illustrator Steve Lenton with their characters Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam!

We got to meet writer Helen Dennis for the first time, and she and Philip discovered that they had both gone to the same school in Brighton, Stanley Deason. It was shut down for being terrible, was dubbed by The Guardian as 'the worst school in Britain' and Reeve used to rather enjoy watching it be at the absolute bottom of annual Ofsted reports until it got shut down. Helen said the bus drivers used to get so scared of the students that they'd sometimes refuse to stop at the bus stops. Funnily enough, Emily Gravett also went there, so it can count at least three illustrious authors, a Carnegie medal and a Greenaway medal among its alumni, which is pretty good for any school. Helen and Philip both sounded rather proud of it, and said it was a good place because if you weren't busy burning down the bus shelters, they'd count you a star pupil, and leave you alone to get on with reading, writing your own stories, whatever you wanted, really.

On the way out, we bumped into writer Darren Shan (pictured here) and also Marcus Sedgwick (but I didn't manage to grab a photo because the cab was just about to pull away).

One of the other fun things was getting to stay in one of the college's halls of residence. (The students were away for half-term break.) I stayed in Christ's College, which is a gorgeous building with ancient courtyards, but the dorm was a big modern thing, which my friend Bridget Hannigan referred to as 'The Typewriter'.

The Typewriter had a Darwin Garden out front, so we mucked around with the guy, whom I wouldn't have recognised without his beard. (Yes, Reeve's pondering his origins here.)

A huge thanks to Sabine, Festival Manager Susannah Gibson, young Greg for looking after us in the Green Room, the student who cleared all their stuff away so I could stay in his or her room, local friends who met up with us the evening before (including comics artist teams Emma Vieceli and Andrew Ruddick, and Woodrow Phoenix) and Bridget Hannigan, and everyone who came to our event and made it so much fun! You can see other tweets about the festival and photos over on the #CamLitFest hash tag.

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8. hey hay, look out for sharks!

Confession: I'm actually very fond of school dinners. Maybe they're better than they used to be, but I've seldom had a bad one. And I get to share them with such lively company! It takes real guts to meet lots of new people in a Welsh school staff room.

Ha ha, it was great to meet Welsh writer Fflur Dafydd when I made a visit to Hay Primary School as part of the Wales-Norway Hay Festival exchange, funded by the European Union's Comenius Project. (Read about my trip to schools in Norway here.) I was pleased to see the kids were very familiar with my picture book There's a Shark in the Bath, and we had a great time talking about the story and drawing sharks together. This was mine:

And here are a couple by the kids at nearby Clyro Primary School. We all customised our sharks to make them very silly. There's nothing as good as taking something scary and making it less scary by putting a moustache or tutu on it.

Sharks from Hay Primary. We had a real shark frenzy at the end!

I got to take the Year 6 class from my Norway travel buddy, teacher James Griffiths. (Cue happy reunion sounds.)

In James's class, we all designed our own Sea Monkey characters, inspired by Oliver and the Seawigs. Here's one:

Sea Monkeys are awfully hard to keep under control, so we let them loose to have their own adventures in a whole-class Comics Jam session. (Each comics panel is drawn by a different person.) It's interesting, every time I ask groups of kids, 'What's the most important thing to remember while making comics', the first kid always says 'To have fun?'. Which makes me laugh a bit, because, in one sense, they're right; particularly with funny comics, you do need to keep a sense of fun. Making comics CAN be terrific fun! But I also know that when people make comics for a living, they're often working under tight deadlines and they need to turn in that comic whether they're having fun or not. Many comics aren't meant to be funny, and great comics have been made by people who were miserable. Heh heh.

The second thing they usually say is 'To be creative?' or 'Use your imagination?' Which are also good guesses, but again, it's better to have a less creative comic than to forget the one main thing, which is... *drum roll*... CLARITY. I always bang on to the kids that the comic has to read very, very clearly.

What does that mean? A lot of people, kids in particular, have to learn that just because something's in their head doesn't mean someone will look at their paper and know what they were thinking. We've all been there, watching a little kid give a detailed explanation of a scribble. I tell the kids that when they're authors, they won't get to be there beside every reader, that the comic has to stand on its own, and make sense.

So I work them quite hard, even though they have fun. They need to remember to add text if the images aren't clear. (A handy label and arrow can turn the same scribble into a spider, a pile of poo, a planet.) They need to give a sense of where the character is located, not just leave them hanging in white space. (Unless they are actually hanging in space, and they they need to show us that with stars, spaceships, etc.) I ask more than once 'where are they standing? Or are they jumping off something? They need to write the words before drawing speech bubbles, so they don't have to squish the text into impossibly tight spaces. Things like that.

It's amazing how much the game pushes them, but since they're writing about silly stuff, they don't seem to mind. And I get such a kick out of seeing what they come up with. The great thing about the Comics Jam is that it makes everyone go at the same pace: five minutes per panel, and everyone ends up drawing four panels. So if someone finishes their panel in ten seconds, it gives them time to look at it again and think about how they could make their panel easier for someone else to read. And it keeps kids who work slowly from being so precious about their comic that they never finish. I think this is quite helpful in making them think about storytelling generally, not just comics.

Big thanks to Hay and Clyro heads Fiona Howard and Dorothy Davies, the kids and teachers for being awesome, and to Heather Salisbury of the Hay Festival for organising my visit! Heather also came to Norway with me and I got to have dinner and a good laugh with her and the festival's Andy Fryers. I'm going to appear at this year's festival and really looking forward to it; keep an eye on the family section of the Hay Festival website for upcoming booking details! Here's a peek into the festival's headquarters:

(You can see some of my past Hay Festival visits here on my blog.)

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9. goodbye, grandpa

My grandpa died today. He won't want to rest in peace; he'll be busy zipping around on his celestial scooter trying to impress the LADIES.

You can see a little comic I made about him a few years ago. And thanks, Daniel Beckett, for your drawing this morning:

Actually, my grandpa WAS a bit of a cyborg, he was always thrilled about the latest gadget that would make him more mobile. Last time I saw him, he almost crashed into a parked car because he wanted to show me how fast he could go on his red Little Rascal. He was endlessly optimistic, a terrible flirt, and so wanted to look good right up to the end that he had all his teeth replaced with new shiny implants a few months before he died.

Grandpa had wonderful people - Mongolian ladies - looking after him at his care home, very near where my aunt and mother live. My aunt and mother (and supporting them, my uncle and dad) were tireless about visiting and taking him to hundreds of hospital appointments and helping him with his treatments. Someone from the care home called my aunt before he went, so my aunt was able to be with him. She says that it was very quiet and he just stopped breathing, so it was as good an ending as could have been hoped for.

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10. horse-based mythical animals monthly

Poor Unicorn! It's all Pegasus this season.

Here's my comic strip that appeared in yesterday's copy of The Funday Times (a section of The Sunday Times.) It's supposed to tie in with the film Rio 2, but the only real connection is a blue flying thing.

Here's a little peek at the work in progress, and the final printed version. (Thanks for tweeting the photo, @Lorna_May_D!) I did the pencil rough on the plane to Dubai and - my poor editor - it was almost illegible.

There's a big discussion going on right now over on the Awfully Big Blog Adventure, analysing the sentiment: 'Sure, the book is awful, but at least they're reading something'. It's worth reading, particularly for the comments. I commented, but it's right at the end, so you'll most likely miss it, and I was responding more to things in the comments than the original article. So here's my mini article:

Why I hate 'proper books':

I keep encountering this term 'proper books' and I hate it so much. Often it's used in a discussion that puts down books which have illustrations in them or stories told in comics format. I wish we could stop using the words 'proper books' because it means different things to different people. Visually literate, well-read people may use it to judge a book fairly among its peers. But well-intentioned adults who know less about books borrow the term to shame kids away from books that are perfectly good, only because they don't understand that kind of book. They may have leafed through a single poorly made comic book and decided they didn't like comics. Or have recollections of being shamed in childhood for reading books with pictures when an adult deemed them too old for that.

What does 'proper' mean, anyway, that makes it a better word than 'good'? Proper implies a certain serious, stiff-collared, sitting-up-straight-at-the-desk educational worthiness. Not an experience that involves curling up in a safe place and getting lost in a world.

Proper, blegh.

Let's stop saying 'proper books' altogether. Anyone with me on this one?

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11. comic capers at essex book festival!

So yesterday Nikki Gamble was tweeting this from the dressing rooms at Chelmsford's Cramphorn Theatre... who could these people be? (Ha ha, we were half hoping someone would draw the top part of the photo.)

And, of course, it was excellent and energetic writer Steve Cole and me, talking comics for Essex Book Festival!

Whenever I do stage events, I'm always a bit sorry that I don't get photos that I can use on my blog. But this great audience tweeted us a great selection! Here's one from @LynneWheater:

We invited people to dress up for the event and, hurrah! Some people did! Check out these great comics characters. Photo tweeted by @sarahyewman!

Steve brought a suitcase of costumes and two excellent volunteers - Heidi and Kit - came up and were transformed into superheroes, on stage and in drawings. Then Steve and I got the audience to help us turn them - Leopard Lady and Monkey Boy - into a comic strip! Photo tweeted by @DianaMayoillo:

Then we led everyone in drawing Superhamster, from Superkid, and people customised them with their own costumes and superpowers. Here's a fab one, tweeted by @LordSiBorg:

And the grand artwork finale!

Steve and I both love comics, but he gets much more excited about the superhero side of things than I do. I don't like many superhero comics, but there are so many other kinds of comics out there that I have no lack of choice! So I was particularly pleased to see Lucy dressed up as Hilda, from Luke Pearson's Hilda comics. Isn't this a great costume? We had a costume competition, and the judge picked the Doctor Who (who DID have an excellent costume, big congrats to him!), but this one was pretty awesome. Look at the hair! Check out the Hilda books if you haven't already. (He's @thatlukeperson on Twitter.) Sarah Yewman has written an excellent blog post about the day, do go have a look at it!

Check out this fab Hamster Man comic one of the kids in the audience made! So awesome to see kids making comics on the spot. I sometimes get festival people sighing when we ask for pencil and paper for everyone in the audience (it's one more thing they need to organise), but there's something really special about adults and kids not just hearing about drawing, but actually DOING it. I mean, that's really what it's all about! (So a big thanks to all the festivals who have humoured me so far with this one.) :D

Yay, Lucy and her friend brought along a couple frisky Sea Monkeys, knitted by their granny! The pattern was created by my studio mate Deadly Knitshade and you can download it free from my website if you want to make one.

Another cool thing: I got to meet the writer of our book Superkid, Claire Freedman, for the VERY FIRST TIME! She had a morning Aliens Love Underpants event, and we were able to have lunch together and talk about Superkid, being on stage, tricky-to-manage hair, all that kind of stuff. I usually work closely with my writers, so it always felt a bit odd that I hadn't met Claire, and I'm glad that it's happened at last. (Great to meet you, Claire!) She's @clairefreedman on Twitter.

Huge thanks to Steve, who was awesome to perform with. And to the fabulous Georgia Snelgrove, who organised our event for the Just Imagine story centre and Essex Book Festival! Thanks to its owner Nikki Gamble, who came to our event despite having just flown in from events in Qatar. And thanks to the Cramphorn Theatre for the use of your lovely venue, that was a fabulous afternoon!

I just had to show you the Berger & Wyse comic strip late that evening that made me spit up my tea. (Joe Berger makes children's books and comics, too; you can follow him at @_JoeBerger.)

One more thing: If you're getting today's copy of The Sunday Times, be sure to look out in The Funday Times for my Shark & Unicorn comic strip!

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12. dressing up!

If you've been following my blog for awhile, you'll know that I love dressing up. When I started going to comics events, particularly MCM Expo, I realised that there is no such thing as Over the Top. But what's just as much fun is seeing other people dress up as the characters in my books! And I got a few peeks at these costumes from World Book Day. Here are a couple of photos of Iris the Mermaid, uploaded by Alice Brewer of craft company BeanPi:

And from @sorrelhersh, here's an Oliver!

But mega points to @helen_geekmum for her beautiful blog post today about making an Iris the Mermaid costume for her daughter.

She's included her drawing for the costume, and her daughter's drawings, too. Click over to have a look!! Thanks so much, Helen!

Click over to have a look!!</a>

Ha ha, this Shark in the Bath had me in stitches. So awesome. Cheers, @bevismusson!

And this Princess Spaghetti from You Can't Eat a Princess! on Instagram via Emma Tanswell! Princess Spaghetti here has some very accurate hair (styled with drinking straws!).

Awesome! If you or your kids ever dress up as my characters, send me a photo, I'll be dying to know. I do have a few pre-made costume items on my website, including how to make your own paper Seawig, your own Superkid mask, and a Princess Spaghetti tiara.

One more thing, Oliver and the Seawigs is up for the Booktrust Best Book Awards! Here's an article in The Guardian about it.

The article's fab, but slightly confusing in that it makes it sound like everyone can vote. But what Booktrust are really looking for is people who are in charge of groups of kids: schools, nurseries, play groups, Brownie troops, libraries, etc. It's a chance to get your group of kids reading and discussing the books, then you can submit their votes. If you're interested in taking part, check out the Booktrust Best Book Awards website! (And vote for Seawigs, if you like it! I'm also a big fan of Benji Davies' Storm Whale; it's a fabulous picture book.

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13. pretend bologna

So no, I've not been at the Bologna Children's Book Fair, but that didn't stop Canadian writer-director Jeff Norton and me today from PRETENDING. (After all, pretending things is our job.)

Now for the most exciting news to come from Bologna... I know the book won't come out for AGES, but I'm still geeking out about it:

(Original source: The Bookseller - @TheBookseller)

Other cool thing from today, I got to go to my first-ever Rehearsed Reading of a play, directed by Francesca Simon's son, Josh Stamp-Simon. (I met Josh a few weeks ago in Dubai at the Emirates lit fest.) A rehearsed reading is what people put on before they get a theatre to host a run of the play; no sets or costumes, just reading out the script. But it was fantastic. Josh had discovered a nearly unknown turn-of-the-century play and it was incredibly funny. And the acting made it come so alive that the lack of sets seemed irrelevant. I didn't take many photos at the Jermyn Street Theatre (I wasn't sure about Rehearsal Reading etiquette), but here's Josh introducing the piece, in front of actors Imogen Stubbs and Julia St John. (You've probably seen Imogen in lots of films, including her role as Lucy Steele in the BBC's Sense in Sensibility.)

And here's the whole group. Spot children's book writer Steven Butler in the crowd. (Hint: maroon jumper, specs.) Best wishes for finding a theatre and getting the play on stage, Josh! This play's a cracker, I think he'll have several people vying for it at once.

Today was a day of discovering lots of people's talent I didn't know about! Until lunchtime, I had no idea that Jeff Norton is a film director, for example. Here's the zombie video that inspired his upcoming book, Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie. I don't generally like zombie films, but this one is quite sweet.

The First Zombie from Jeff Norton on Vimeo.

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14. bologna update

I wasn't able to go to the Bologna Children's Book Fair this year, but news is still coming in! Mark A. Chambers tweeted this picture of the Oxford University Press stand, with its big Cakes in Space poster:

And my agent, Jodie Hodges, spotted this napkin still hanging on the wall at Da Silvio, the restaurant we went to last year during our visit! (Here's a close-up of the napkin; that was a good night.)

A couple more peeks at Cakes in Space, my upcoming book with Philip Reeve. It's all set in space, so you think there wouldn't be much reason to draw plants, but Pilbeam the robot shows the girl Astra that the ship has a herbarium. So I got to draw cool growing things and robotic insects.

The look of this page is very influenced by medieval manuscript illumination and paintings. Which was great fun, mixing it into this futuristic context.

(Read more about the Bologna Children's Book Fair in an earlier post.) A couple more fun peeks from Twitter:

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15. seawigs at oxford lit fest 2014

Yesterday Oxford Lit Fest saw a sea life invasion!

Check out this wonderful Iris the mermaid costumes! It was made by Helen (@helen_geekmum on Twitter) and even includes Colin the crab and Iris's pointy specs!

Writer Jo Cotterill made these two great Seawigs!

And she tweeted this drawing by her daughter. (You can follow Jo at @jocotterillbook.)

Jo also took this photo of my co-author Philip Reeve and I leading everyone in a rousing rendition of the Eep Song:

It was actually quite a star-studded audience! Here's one of my illustration heroes, Mini Grey, who came along with her son. Both made drawings!

We got to see lots of people's fab drawings while we signed copies of Oliver and the Seawigs:

Photo by Jo Cotterill

So many details in this girl's drawing! Click on the photo for a close-up:

More fabulous Seawiggery!

Even the MC for our event, The Sunday Times reviewer Nicolette Jones (@NicoletteJones on Twitter) got into the swing of drawing a Sea Monkey! Here she is at lunch, with Paul Blezard (who still had his tan from the Emirates lit fest).

Thanks so much to everyone who came along, and a special thanks to the people who dressed up!

And who put up with my singing voice, which is as clear and melodic as Iris's:

Back in the festival Green Room, Horrid Henry's Francesca Simon asked to try on my Seawig:

And the daughter of our Oxford University Press publicist Harriet Bayly turned out to be a big fan of our upcoming book, Cakes in Space and we spent some time drawing Pilbeam the robot. (This book is the Uncorrected Proof copy, not the final version.)

I got to meet NYC-based writer Polly Shulman and her husband. Polly's written a book called The Wells Bequest, which I can't wait to read.

Oxford's always great fun to visit. Here I am, chucking Lewis Carroll under the chin, and the view from my bedroom in a hall of residence in Christ Church college.

Hogwarts breakfast! The Great Hall is pretty cool.

Reeve and I also visited The Story Museum, to see what they're up to, getting ready for their 26 Characters exhibition. Reeve has an uncanny knack of looking like a perfect Doctor Who.

We met up with The Story Museum's Tom Donegan and Neill Cameron, Philip Ardagh, Nicolette Jones and Ted Dewan in the pub. We were raving about the amazing Storyloom that Ted's designed, and just as the last few us of were about to leave, he invited us back to The Story Museum and said he'd fire it up for us. It's just too awesome to contemplate. (You can read an earlier blog post I wrote about it here.) Here's Ardagh, hard at work on it:

And this photo of Reeve is just plain weird:

Big thanks to Oxford lit fest for hosting us, everyone who took part in our event, Nicolette for chairing, The Story Museum, Oxford University Press and everyone who made is such a fantastic weekend. If you missed us, keep an eye on my Events Page to see if we're coming somewhere near you!

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16. christopher walken

Today's morning sketch: actor Christopher Walken. I got the proportions a bit wrong so I messed around a bit with the photo on my computer. (Original sketch here on Instagram.) ...Actually, I'm not sure which one I like better now.

And I picked Christopher Walken because I saw this fabulous video, beautifully edited from 50 of his films, turning clips into one great dance routine. I'd never really thought of Walken as a dancer, but guys, he's got the MOVES.

Gosh, I wish I knew how to dance. When you're trying to make people know about your books, it helps to have a few extra things you can do. And I don't have any, really, I mostly just draw. But I've already learned two songs on the ukulele and I've gotten over being embarrassed that I can't sing very well. Philip Reeve and I wrote a Sea Monkey sea shanty, and we applied the principle that the kids aren't there to see us, but to be seen. If we give them a very active part to play in the song, they go completely nuts. So last weekend I tried out my new Shark song. It was a bit ropey, but I'm getting better at it. Reeve wrote me the lyrics while he was out walking his dog, and John Dougherty was game for helping me figure out some chords and a tune while we were in Leicester for Author Week.

Thank so much, guys! (And to illustrator Jo Byatt for posting the photo on my new Facebook page.) Shark in the Bath, coming to a stage near YOU. Still wish I could dance like Christopher Walken, but I'll have to leave that for another day.

Oh! And I see that Philip Reeve has blogged about our desert adventure, with a video of us singing the Sea Monkey song. Ha ha! Go see if over on the Girls Heart Books blog.

One more thing: Leicester-based comics artist Rachael Smith is making a comic book called House Party with Great Beast (a new publishing house set up by comics artists Marc Ellerby and Adam Cadwell). They need some dosh to get it printed. Click over to her Kickstarter page and help her out if you can! Even just a few pounds makes a difference. These guys are so inspiring; they don't wait around to be picked up by a publisher, they just do it themselves. And do it well!

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17. cakes in space: gearing up for bologna children's book fair

If you work in children's books, you'll know that everyone's gearing up like mad for the Bologna Children's Book Fair: designers are shrieking and running about with cut-up bits of paper (ARGHHH!!!!); rights people are trying to find little pockets of calm to make phone calls to Canada, Korea (SHHHH!!); Bologna cafe owners are making up extra buckets of gelato (Bene, bene!). And I've been - very quietly (eep eep!)- making up some samples for the Oxford University Press stand:

Remember those great Seawigs bags we had last year? This year they're going to be orange, and feature cakes, aliens and robots.

Here's another little peek:

'So what is the Bologna Children's Book Fair?' you ask. It's an exhibition centre in Italy with enormous halls - like airplane hangars - where publishers display their books, many of which haven't launched yet. And their agents work like mad to sell the rights of the books to other countries, to be published in other languages. (These are called 'co-editions'.) Britain's a small country, so if you sell a book well in Britain, that's great, but if the book can be selling in 15 different languages, there's a chance you might actually make a living from it! My co-author Philip Reeve and I went to Bologna last year with our publisher, it's an amazing place. OUP let us draw all over the stall, and I always love the chance to peek at foreign editions, particularly the French language picture books; they often have such interesting design and quirky illustrations that expect quite a lot of advanced abstract thought from their readers.

If you want to catch a bit of Bologna action, you can follow the hashtag #BCBF14. (I think this is the first year they've actually managed to pull together an organised hashtag for English language tweets. Past year's it's been Twitter chaos.)

One of the exciting things has been seeing the Uncorrected Proof copy of Cakes in Space arrive in the post! This is a work-in-progress version, with about half the illustrations finished, and the other half as pencil sketches.

This very limited edition will be missing a bunch of fun stuff like the author pages and endpapers. Last year I'd finished all but the last chapter, and this year I was feeling a bit bad that I'd only managed half this time. But I talked about it with some people, and actually, I think this way might be better: last year people thought they basically had the finished book, and they were surprised when much later they saw the final version, how much more interesting stuff it had in it. This one doesn't pretend to be finished, but it still gives an early reader a very good idea of what's in store.

I've completed all the artwork now and we're working on final edits. I couldn't go to the Emirates lit fest until I'd finished, and that meant I had to put in some very long hours. It really was quite gruelling, and half of me felt terrible about it, because I wasn't giving my friends and family any time, and leaving stacks of e-mails unanswered. But another part of me loved the excuse to switch off from everything but drawing, and really focus on making great pictures. And then I'd feel a bit guilty for enjoying it so much when everyone was annoyed at me for letting them down in so many different ways. So yes, some tears and pleading were involved. I think this is the hardest thing about my job right now, always feeling like I'm letting down so many people all the time. I get quite depressed about it. ...That is why I need my fleet of McIntyre Clones.

...Heh heh, I love this Zen teacake here, he looks like such a calm little dude in the midst of cakey chaos.

Cakes in Space launches in the UK this September, and fingers crossed that it does well in Bologna. Oliver and the Seawigs did VERY well - 14 foreign co-editions sold - so this year I'm optimistic.

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18. shark & unicorn: bathtub adventure

I'm very aware that I've been posting all these event photos, but not many drawings! But I was working yesterday on my Shark and Unicorn comic strip for The Funday Times (a section of The Sunday Times). Here's a little peek at the upcoming strip, from when I was inking it on my lightbox:

And I think I missed the last strip running in the paper while I was deadlining for Cakes in Space. So here it is. I've already put a shark in the bath, but this is the first time it has involved time travel... or not.

Events! I still have some upcoming events! Have a look to see if I'm in your area and come draw with me. :)

Oxford Literary Festival, Sat, 22 March, 12 noon, Corpus Christi College:
Set sail for adventure with Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre! Their book, Oliver and the Seawigs, is full of giggly-but-dangerous monkeys, a near-sighted mermaid and some very big hair. There will be live drawing, ukuleles and lots of laughs.
Book tickets here!

Essex Book Festival, Sat, 29 March, Chelmsford, 2pm, Cramphorn Theatre:
Blast off with Steve Cole and Sarah McIntyre for an afternoon of comic capers. Find out how comics inspire the talented duo and pick up some tips for your own comic creations. Whether you enjoy writing, drawing or simply reading comics, this hour of madcap hilarity with two of the most popular children’s book creators will put a smile on your face.
Book tickets here!

Cambridge Literary Festival, Sat, 4 April, 1pm, Winstanly Lecture Theatre:
Set sail for an adventure with story-telling legends Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre as they introduce their book Oliver and the Seawigs, full of giggly-but-dangerous monkeys, a near-sighted mermaid and some very BIG WIGS. Learn how to draw your own Sea Monkey and let your monkey join in with the silly sea shanty chorus!
Book tickets here!

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19. inky cake battle

Here's another little peek at what I'm working on, a wild spread from Cakes in Space, my next book with Philip Reeve. I'm sitting here with my dip pen and India ink, tracing over my pencil drawing on my light box. It's a little tricky to tell you what's happening here, without giving too much away, but it involves KILLER CAKES.

And my sister posted this video on Facebook, of two highly overcaffeinated cello players in period dress, doing a cover of AC/DC's Thunderstruck. What's not to love?

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20. happy birthday, stuart

we've been celebrating Stuart's birtday and I made him a card:

Drawing chubby mermaids is fun; you can see lots more that other people have drawn here. I tried to make it look sort of like an old-time saucy seaside postcard. Stuart was most pleased that I'd included Colin the crab. Stuart's a big Colin fan; I didn't have him on one page of There's a Shark in the Bath and Stuart protested, so I put him in. (This is not Colin, below, this is just some random lovestruck fish.)

Speaking of seaside postcards, my greatest contact with the British seaside has been Bexhill-on-sea, where Stuart's dad lived until he died recently. Stuart was there on the weekend, and he and his brother stopped into the Sovereign Light cafe, across the street from his dad's place. There was a little notice in the menu about it being featured in a Keane music video, so this morning, Stuart looked it up on YouTube. We were quite staggered to see that it could practically be a documentary of where Stuart's dad used to live. The video starts out with a shot of his block of flats, goes up and down the promenade where he walked every day, and ends back at the cafe, in front of his flat again. We watched it, and watched it again, and Stuart got quite teary. He's had a hard year and it felt a bit like a tribute to the place he's visited so often, and, in a way, to his dad. You can watch it here:

Direct YouTube link

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21. cakes in space: the poglites

I'm still working like mad on Cakes in Space, my second book with Philip Reeve. Recently I've been drawing some characters called the Poglites. Our main character, Astra, gets her first glimpse of them as they ride up on their scooter:

Usually I put a bit of imaginative effort into our characters, but this time they came ready-made. I first spotted them as chimney pots in the town of Lynton, near Exmoor.

They stand quite proudly in these groups and, truth be told, look slightly sinister.

I posted this photo on Instagram and Philip replied that these had to be our Poglites. We liked their chunky, low-tech Doctor Who look. Like the Daleks, they might have trouble climbing stairs. Philip doodled this in his sketchbook, and that pretty much nailed it.

While Astra's space ship is very tidy, the Poglites' place is a dump. Here's Astra aboard their ship, when everything in the story gets a bit worrying.

Cakes in Space will launch this autumn, the follow-up (but not sequel) to Oliver and the Seawigs.

Other news: the Emirates lit fest has posted an interview with me, about writing and making books. They were asking about writing, and I was rather pleased I managed to work in illustration and comics. I don't know how popular comics are in Dubai and the Middle East, or even how easy it would be to buy comics in Dubai, the city which hosts the festival. Click here to read the interview.

Keep reading here...

And I suppose this folk song is thematically related to Cakes in Space; I like it very much. The whole album on Spotify, The Full English has been cheering me up as I've been working quite long hours. Hope you like it, too!

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22. self portrait as shark

A little doodle from this morning: self portrait as shark. This is me today, working hard and clacking my teeth.

But in the meantime, lots of exciting things are going on! The Lakes International Comic Art Festival has announced the two artists who have won the competition to draw 24-Hour Comics with us: Joe Decie and Warwick Johnson Cadwell. Those guys are two of my all-time favourite comic creators, so I'm super excited. And, if I was a different sort of person, I'd probably feel intimidated, but really, it's just going to be a lot of fun. I'm hugely excited about LICAF this October in Kendal. I've never been, but last year everyone was raving about what a wonderful festival it was, and I'm looking forward to taking part in it. You can read John Freedman's article about the latest announcement and see some of Joe and Warwick's work here at Down the Tubes.

Warwick has a wonderful, loose, slightly abstract way of drawing that I absolutely love; his odd takes on perspective remind me a little bit of one of my early children's book influences, Satoshi Kitamura, but Warwick's linework is much more wild. Joe takes a much more gentle, watercolour approach and his storytelling is wonderfully witty and surreal.

Stuart and I joined the Reeve family the other day to go see Jeeves and Wooster at the Duke of York Theatre in London. It's BRILLIANT, I laughed so hard my stomach hurt. It's ingeniously worked as a play within a play and the actors make me smile just thinking about them. Highly recommended!

Okay, now some other cool things people have pointed out to me on the Internets... Check out this fascinating looking documentary Kickstarter campaign, She Makes Comics. I've given it a small backing; think about donating something, even just five bucks via Paypal. It'd be great to see more women comics people in the spotlight. (Thanks to my web designer, Dan Fone, for tipping me off to it.)

I saw on Twitter that Moontrug is hosting a competition to write and draw about your own Seawig creation. I don't know the amount of the Waterstones voucher prize, but I can guarantee drawing Seawigs is Lots of Fun. Details here!

And check out these amazing playground designs! Thomas Knudson from Danish design studio Monstrum takes these constructions to a whole new level. (Link via Bridget Hannigan and Wired.)

James Mayhew has posted a wonderful letter he received from Moomin creator Tove Jansson in 1993.

And here's a video to make you smile: how many goats can stand on a piece of bendy metal? (Link via Meg Rosoff and Tastefully Offensive.)

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23. Dubai: Emirates Lit Fest 2014

I've been to the desert! And taken far too many glam sand photos!

Also, I have met a camel. Did you know their noses are so hairy? When I got an invitation to come out to Dubai for the Emirates Festival of Literature, I talked with writer Philip Ardagh, who'd been in previous years and he said, 'YOU MUST GO, IT IS AMAZING' (or something to that effect). And Geraldine McCaughrean told me such intriguing stories from her visit that I was absolutely bouncing with excitement to see if all myself.

And it WAS amazing. I think the authors of books for adults were slightly surprised just HOW popular the children's events were! The kids there - both Emirati and expat - were falling over themselves to get books, read books, talk about books, write and draw. My Oliver and the Seawigs co-author Philip Reeve went out, too, and we got completely caught up in the excitement.

(Read the rest of the article here.)

I mean, how many times do you get to see writer-illustrator Sally Gardner and journalist Kate Adie riding a camel together?

Or even better, getting off a camel? Watching other people dismount from camels is by far the most funny part of the camel riding experience.

Here's Horrid Henry writer Francesca Simon bonding with her camel.

But that was nothing like the way her theatre director son, Josh Stamp-Simon, bonded with that camel. I have about twenty pictures of Josh and his camel snogging.

I thought at first that the camel and I were getting on beautifully, but she just wanted my drink. *sob* By the way, look how big her head is. Camel heads are HUGE.

I took even MORE photos of performance poet-musician Walter Wray trying to take a selfie with the camels. I don't think anyone else was watching, but he was going at it with such dedication and gusto that it had me quietly bent over with dry-heave laughing. He was like some Hollywood comedy film from the 1930's.

Performance poet Pam Ayres got into the swing of things and before she left, drew a camel on the signature board in the festival Green Room. A camel drawing by Pam Ayres, how cool is that?

Reeve nearly had a fanboy meltdown, he loves Pam Ayres. My one festival mission from him was to get a photo with Pam Ayres. But she insisted he come in, too. We love Pam. Reeve even made a brief return to Twitter for her:

Pam read some very funny poems at the festival Opening Ceremony. Here's one I found on the Internet. I was also hoping to find some Seventies footage of her in her Holly Hobbie dresses, but no luck yet.


On the Opening Night, we had a great performance from local schools, with a song commissioned just for the evening on the theme of 'Metamorphosis', the children all dressed in colourful Middle Eastern garb:

Speaking of Metamorphosis (think butterfly, not Kafka), costume and dressing up played a big part in my week's activities.

In fact, some of the fancy headgear was improvised on the spot:

Reeve joined me in the efforts, note his swanky crystal crown.

Even the volunteers got into the swing of things! Here's a two-pronged Jennifer Martin:

I've always envied the Emirates Airline flight attendants their red pillbox hats, and we did a brief Emirates-Pirates swapsies. (I failed in my mission to acquire a red hat full-time.)

At the desert picnic, everyone got a lovely headscarf. Reeve likes this picture because he thinks with the sunglasses that it makes him look like a Tough Dude. Don't mess with the Reeve.

Actually, I think it looks better on him as a necktie. We took way too many desert selfies. I could post them all here but you'd never read my blog ever again.

Paul Blezard (who once chaired my Giant Comic Jam event with Reeve and Martin Brown at Hay Festival) didn't want anything to do with head gear but sported an excellent skirt instead. (Check out his Saving Grace book crowdfunding project.)

And this couple, Deon Meyer and ____ (oo, can someone help me with her name? I'm trying to remember! She's very nice!) looked amazing in their desert garb. I never saw any Emirati women wearing white, just the men, so I was wondering if they might look at her a bit askance. But she told me that a woman in the lift said that she looked 'very Persian', so that was okay. Knowing which clothes to bring on this trip was a bit challenging, I didn't want to cause any cultural offense. But I never had any problems, everyone was very relaxed about short sleeves and stuff like that.

Just an hour before I left, I found this BRILLIANT shop called Alyashmac, in the Gallery mall connected to the InterContinental Hotel. I had to catch my plane, which was such a shame because there were so many amazing dresses in there. If I ever go back, I'm going to make such a beeline for that place. The shop owner said that the styles aren't the kind that Emirati women wear, but he gets a lot of customers from Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. So swish.

One of the great things about the festival is that it's nearly a week long, so we all get far more time than most festivals to meet the other guests. While I was looking at the programme before I flew out there, one of the people I was most curious to meet was Darcey Bussell, one of Britain's all-time best-loved ballerinas. I was a bit shy about even asking for a photo, but Darcey insisted I sit down on the sofa between her and Lea Sellers, and we went all happy-snappy on the cameras.

Later I watched this video about her, and I was struck by the fact that she had retired at almost exactly the same age that I felt my career was starting as a 'proper job', something I could live on. I look to illustrators such as Shirley Hughes, Judith Kerr and Quentin Blake, who are in their 80s and 90s and still working, and it's strange to think that in ballet, I would be finishing my work and moving on to something else. But one similarity is that Darcey said it took her 14 or 15 years to get into her job, and I think it's taken me about that long, too. I started later than her, I wasn't focused from such a young age on making books.

(Direct YouTube link)

Oh, and the other similarity is that we both had books to talk about! Besides her Magic Ballerina children's books, I saw her signing copies of this lovely coffee table book, Darcey Bussell: a Life in Pictures.

But all this retrospection, it isn't a whole 'life'; Darcey's still going strong, and... ha ha, we're still taking pictures of her. Also, the real-life 8-year-old Dulcie who stars in my There's a Shark in the Bath book (and loves dancing) was extremely jealous I met her hero. I got the tweet from her mum almost as soon as I posted the photo.

Another person I was thrilled to meet was Joanne Harris, writer of Chocolat (inspiring the film of the same name) and very funny Twitter person. (She's @Joannechocolat.)

Also, great food! Sometimes strange food! Like this Ghost Toast with dressing syringe at the Murder Mystery Dinner.

I was a bit nervous about the Murder Mystery Dinner, that we'd all have to act out cheesy roles or something. But it turned out to be great fun, we got to watch the performance, and our table mates turned out to be fascinating: one was a headmaster at a school attended mostly by children of the royal family, another couple frequently rented the house right next to Reeve's house. His alpacas graze in their field. Small world or what? Here's Reeve's sketch of one of the actors. And a picturesque pudding.

In fact, all the meals were so good that when I hit on a single item of food that was rather tasteless and indifferent (one lone, green, savoury jelly), it stood out most strangely. Note Joanne's deeply empathetic expression.

The festival asked me to do a Princess & Pirates event, featuring my picture book with writer Gillian Rogerson, You Can't Scare a Princess!. And quite a few of the kids dressed up! I didn't get many photos from my own stage shows, but here's a picture in the local Al Bayan newspaper.

They had good fun learning how to draw Captain Waffle. (I have lots more fun activity ideas here on my website if anyone went to the event and wants to do more related creative stuff.)

We didn't mention dressing up for my Oliver and the Seawigs event with Philip Reeve, but this girl came as an excellent mermaid. Yay! Look at the great drawings she made during the event:

One of the most exciting things about doing events is when we arrive and the children already know and love the books, and have done activities featuring them. And these kids had! Reeve and I both took walks over to the Gallery exhibition in the shopping mall to see our books featured in children's artwork.

Here are some gorgeous paintings inspired by my book with writer Claire Freedman, Superkid:

And a painted copy of the cover of my newest book, There's a Shark in the Bath! While it's good to come up with new ideas, it's also sometimes very helpful – as an exercise – to copy the work of illustrators you admire, to find out how they did it, and get an overall sense of the colours, composition, and lettering.

I like these new versions of the Oliver and the Seawigs covers, featuring bands of colourful sky.

Here are a few close-ups of the characters:

And a very cheeky Sea Monkey! Eep! :D

But we didn't spend our whole time in the hotel and mall, we also got to go on a tour of the old trading part of Dubai. Reeve shot this photo of me approaching the spice market:

I love these old boats. Living by the Thames in London, I've had to come to terms with the fact that the old days of shipping are dead - the days when people heaved crates and barrels and shipyards swarmed with people - and container shipping has taken over. But these boats still unload the old way, and it was fascinating to see huge piles of boxes on the quayside. Someone could do a fascinating photo essay of these beautifully painted boats and their workers.

Amazing textiles and embroidered dresses in the market:

Exotic biscuits (I could have bought a Lexus!) and colourful spices. That's Georgina Walsh, the lit fest cultural and social programme manager, examining some sort of sponge with cooking expert Prue Leith.

I'll have to ask someone for our local guide's name, but he was very funny; he relished his ability to speak English and come up with startling and often wonderful new ways of saying things. Our favourite phrases included:

* 'Give me your laser-like attention'
* 'Make your bladder gladder'
* 'Ginger up your steps' / 'Please walk gingerly'
* 'If you have any questions, I am disposable'
* 'I hope you enjoyed our intensive and extensive tour and that it lived up to your most utopian expectations'
* ... And another one that is so good, I won't tell you, because it will probably end up in a book.

I only remembered these because I got Reeve to help me write them down in my notebook on the bus ride back. We also quite liked this phrase from the House of the Poet:

When we next saw camels, we made sure that none of them footed on us. ...But in case people think I'm being critical, it's just like the food; the English people spoke was so excellent that the rare, slight variations only gave their speech extra charm.

While we were in the old quarter, we also visited a house hotel with lots of art displayed in it.

This photo made me laugh, because I always wear a lot of colour, whereas Reeve revels in different tea-stained tones of brown. I like to call it 'The Sepia World of Reeve'.

Our guide also led us to the Women's Museum, not far from the market. We were given a gracious talk by the museum's founder, Professor Rafia Obaid Ghubash. It was fascinating to see the focus on women, and it's great that the museum is a place for people to gather, remember historic women from the region, read their poetry and discuss modern culture. But I struggled to relate to many of the ideals the museum seemed to put forward. As a professional woman who has decided not to have children, I didn't understand how to appreciate the seeming emphasis on women primarily as childbearers and mothers, and that role seeming to define their value. What about women who choose not to bear children, cannot have them, or define themselves by other things?

Also, I had a hard time knowing how to feel positive in any way about the display of facial coverings, that looked very much like heavy moustaches or horse bridles. Our professor guide spoke positively about them giving women dignity, but I still don't understand how, in a hot climate, men could wear cool white and keep their faces uncovered, while women wear heavy synthetic black garments and obscure their faces with something that looks so uncomfortable and impractical.

Again, the Burq'a seemed very impractical for passport photos. It made me feel that women were interchangeable, in a way that men weren't. Perhaps I misunderstood the exhibitions, but it made me see the need for meeting together with people from different cultures so we can discuss, debate, question our own beliefs and take away the best things from each culture.

But we can all agree about PENS. Emiratis appreciate a good pen. Here's a lovely case from the a museum of Dubai's oldest school. I love it that Arabic culture totally appreciates that writing is as much a visual art form as illustrating.

In fact, all the authors were given a very good fountain pen at the festival, sponsored by Montegrappa. Here's my note of appreciation in their guest book.

Speaking of facial covering, I was glad for the chance to meet in the Green Room someone I would have passed in the hallway without seeing, picture book writer and illustrator Maitha Al Khayat. Here she is with science fiction novelist Noura Noman. Noura's also planning to go into publishing Arabic comics, which would be fabulous. (You can follow her on Twitter as @NouraNoman.) Maitha (@MaithaALkhayat) has worked in the past on a picture book with British writer Vivian French (also at the festival), and she has a book coming out about a child who can recognise her mother, covered all in black, by her colourful socks.

It was great being able to talk comics, but we also talked about facial covering, which Maitha does find gives her dignity and the ability to keep her looks from getting in the way of relating to people. I find that the veil itself gets in the way of me managing to connect with people at an event; I've led events in Leicester with rows of mothers in the back covered in black, all but their eyes. I've gotten used to it, but one of the things that inspires me when speaking to groups of people is the quick flash of smiles when they connect with something I've said, and I can gauge the talk by seeing how animated their faces are. Then again, I feel slightly disingenuous, since I'm not exactly in my natural state either; I hide behind big hats, lipstick and costume. But that's about choice, I choose to do it, and so does Maitha. I really don't like people covering their faces, but I'm much more against it if it's something they're forced to do, either by a husband or a culture. I'm glad Maitha let me see her face when there weren't men around, but I missed saying hello to her later when she passed in the hallway because I only later realised it had been her. I'm a visual person, I miss the loss of instant individuality. But I'm very glad to have met Maitha and Noura and listened to them talk about it. It would be nice to talk more about comics, I hope to see them again some day.

Comics! Most of my events at the festival were stage events, but I also led one smaller comics workshop.

Since the workshop featured comics collaboration, I was glad that Philip Reeve agreed to come along with me and do a Comics Jam with me in front of everyone. I did the first panel, he did the second, I did the third, he finished the story.

Here are a couple of the group's Comic Jams! Each page had four diffent authors working on it!

I was glad how much the group really got stuck in to it, particularly one dad, who came up and thanked me at the end and said how much he'd enjoyed the activity. I love it when adults get involved, for three reasons: 1, because comics are for all ages; 2, because kids take the session much more seriously when they realise they're working alongside adults, not being babysat; 3, kids realise adults can have a laugh and be playful, too, even when they're focusing and working hard on something.

I wish I could have gone to all the other authors' events; there were so many amazing choices on offer! Reeve and I did sneak into the back of Vivian French's Picture Book Masterclass before our comics session, and were able to stay for three-quarters of it. Totally ace, that woman is so clever, and she really got everyone thinking. I've run into Viv several times at the Edinburgh Festival, and one of the highlights of this trip was getting to have meals with her and get to know her better. (Viv's @fivekingdoms on Twitter.)

We had a good laugh at the Emirates display of a First Class airline compartment, posing like celebrities. Viv tweeted this photo I took of her in the paparazzi spotlight.

Another very cool thing about the festival were two Emirati women who attended some of our events and made murals about them, right while we were talking! I'm horribly disappointed I didn't get a photo of them, and if anyone can tell me their names, I'll write them in here. I didn't even realise they were doing it in our Seawigs session and was completely bowled over with amazement when I walked into the festival bookshop and saw this huge mural:

Some close-up detail:

And here's the one they did at my Pirate event! Isn't that awesome?

Another event I got to attend was Philip Reeve's event with Charlie Higson. (Eoin Colfer was supposed to be part of it, too, but he was unwell.) Some of the schools had to leave early, and the guys signed a few books before they started.

So many of the children knew their work very well; the authors undoubtedly both felt very encouraged by that, and it showed, in a sparkling good session, touching on Charlie's Young James Bond books, the Doctor Who book for which both had written short stories, and Philip's Here Lies Arthur, Mortal Engines, and Larklight books. You can follow them at @monstroso and @philipreeve1 on Twitter. Send in Pam Ayres if Reeve's off Twitter for too long.

More excited fans:

I even got to sit with the speakers at dinner and watch the amazing fountains at the base of the Burj Khalifa: highest tower in the world, world's largest fountain. They put on amazing musical water shows every half hour, they were brilliant to watch.

Here's Sally Gardner (a href=http://jabberworks.livejournal.com/data/"https://twitter.com/TheSallyGardner">@TheSallyGardner</a>) watching the display:

The restaurant with the great view was slightly disappointingly British, but, hey, you can't go wrong with a good PIE.

We had lots of wonderful dinners. At this one, I ran around being slightly obnoxious and papping people on my iPhone. Here's Francesca Simon with Christina Lamb, journalist and co-author of I Am Malala, which has been very much in the news. Christina gave a great talk at the Opening Ceremony about working with Malala as the girl was recovering from being shot in the head, and we watched on-screen a message that Malala had recorded for us. (Francesca and Christina are @simon_francesca and @christinalamb on Twitter.)

Oo, selfie with Jeremy Paxman! He liked my hat.

And here are picture book legends Helen Oxenbury and her husband, John Birmingham. I'd never met either of them before, so it was a real honour to get the chance to have dinner with them. I'm a big fan of Farmer Duck and Mr Gumpy's Outing.

Being all posey with Reeve and Richard Madeley from the Richard and Judy book show:

And here's journalist Rosie Goldsmith (@GoldRosie)! When I was in Norway last month, my hosts there (John and Helga Rullestad) raved about her and told me I MUST find her in Dubai. I'm going back to Norway in November for the SILK festival and I'll look forward to seeing her then. (That's Paxman again, photobombing us in the back.)

Here's reporter and interviewer Riz Khan, who kept us laughing with his jokes and impressions all through dinner at the amazing Madinat Jumeirah hotel.

We got to do lots of media stuff. Here's my squid attacking Jeremy Bowen before a Dubai Eye radio interview.

An awards presentation, where I got to say a few words about making books, my lovely Seawigs publisher, Oxford University Press, and congratulate the winners of a top writing competition. (Read the full article here.)

Also, an interview about making picture books in The National:

And in case it all seems too glossy, a quick look backstage. ...Okay, there are thrones backstage. Which reminds me about a very long joke my dad used to tell about glass houses and stowing thrones.

Here's a jolly picture of Philip Reeve and Joanne Harris dancing beneath the palm trees. You can read Joanne's write-up of the festival over on her blog.

My only real regrets from the festival were not getting to meet Swiss cartoonist Philippe Chappuis (also known as 'Zep'), although I'm not sure what I would have said to him, probably just grinned a lot. And I only got to call greetings across the escalator to Lemn Sissay. He did a fantastic poetry recitation at the Desert Stanzas evening, which I couldn't really capture in a photograph, but which was magical, and set in a desert camp.

And I would have loved to have gone to more author talks, and seen Walter Wray, Steve Halliwell and Chris Hardy of LiTTLe MACHiNe perform on Friday night.

Here's a video preview of them, they're @L1TTL3MACH1N3 on Twitter and they're actually based in London, so I may yet get the chance to go along to one of their gigs.

This is LiTTLe MACHiNe (EPK) from LiTTLe MACHiNe on Vimeo.

Oh, and my last regret was not knowing in advance that a ballet troupe would basically be performing a Seawigs-themed ballet clip for us in the Closing Ceremony. If Reeve and I had known, we definitely would have roped them into doing our event with us. The crab was the cutest thing EVER.


Finally, a HUGE thanks to the team who ran the festival. They were incredible. The whole festival ran so smoothly, I had such fun, everyone seemed to be so well looked after, the kids were on fire with enthusiasm, we even got to sign a vast quantity of books.

Three cheers for Director Isobel Abulhoul, the visionary person who set up the festival in the first place, with the generous patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum (who is also an author). And that's fab intern Annabelle Corton standing with us!

And a massive round of applause to Acting Director and hero Yvette Judge, who started out running the children's part of the festival and took on the whole thing when Isobel was unwell and needed to stay in the UK. Total star, that woman. (She's @lit_ed on Twitter.)

Here's Cultural & Social Programme Manager Georgina Walsh coming in style across the water to collect us by boat at the Madinat Jumeirah hotel dinner:

Thank you, Emirates Airlines, for the VERY COMFY ride there and back, and for your beautifully be-hatted staff:

Here's super Jo James, who remarked on my hats each morning and was always totally organised, letting me know exactly where I should be and when.

I'm going to need some help here with names (can you help?) - names fall out the corners of my memory as quickly as coins through the holes in my ratty handbags - but these people were kind, loads of fun, and helpful, and made me feel surrounded by friends.

The Emirates Lit Fest has posted more photos on their Facebook page, if you want to check them out. I miss it already.

Goodbye, sweeping hotel view.

Goodbye, lovely breakfasts on the Crown Plaza terrace with funny, strange little birds with bobbly heads.

Goodbye, weird and wonderful architecture:

I'll miss how everything seemed to have such a heightened sense of drama about it:

And watching Reeve go off into the desert so far that all I could see was his hat bobbing along the dunes.

Thank you so much for your wonderful hospitality!

That was probably my longest blog post, ever. And here's where I make a dramatic fall into the sand, like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Little Prince.


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24. leicester author week 2014

So I went straight from Gatwick Airport to Leicester and thought I was going to crash from tiredness, but it was fun! These guys helped a lot, I always perk up when I see writers John Dougherty and Bali Rai.

I had two days of working with kids for Leicester Author Week - 800 kids in total!! - focusing with half of them on Oliver and the Seawigs and the other half on There's a Shark in the Bath. Even though Seawigs isn't a comic, the session had a comics focus and in the workshop half of the event, I led them in a big Sea Monkey Comics Jam. Here you can see one kid working on the last comics panel.

Take that, you shark guts! ...Take that, you poo poo head! Ha ha, it's so much fun reading the stuff kids write. I also managed to pop into a shop near the Tigers Rugby Club, where we were meeting, and buy a few fun odds and ends, including a blue hair, a Cleopatra headdress and an inflatable shark. You never know when you might need an inflatable shark.

For the younger kids (5-7), I led them in drawing a shark. I love seeing all the variations on my drawing; all these sharks have such unique character.

I got to meet writer Andy Briggs, whom I'd met once before. I've done Leicester Author Week for the Whatever It Takes programme for quite a few years, and I always look out for storyteller Jyoti Shanghavi (on the right). This time I also got to meet storyteller Anita Kumari (left), and found out that, combined, the two women are able to speak TEN languages!!!

For my Shark in the Bath workshop, I had kids think of something scary that they could put in a bathtub, but then draw a picture of it looking silly, like the moustachioed shark in my book. Here's a bath full of snakes:

I think it's a great way to address a fear of something: draw it so it's obviously totally absurd and have a laugh about it. (And some kids just had fun loading up their bathtubs with cool stuff.)

I'll post a bunch of their drawings, some of them are very funny and some have surprisingly good design elements about them.

After two very full days of events, that was it, I was ready to go HOME. Here's fab Juliet Martin, who was so good at helping work with the large groups of kids. Thanks for being awesome, Ellen Lee, Katie Little and the rest of the Leicester Whatever-it-Takes team!

It was strange waking up to this view after being in Dubai for a week. And I retired my white boots, they don't really last more than 15 wearings or so without being irredeemably shabby.

And there was even time to catch up with friends! John Dougherty came along for a curry with Leicester locals (and comics people) Jay Eales, Selina Lock and Rachael Smith. I'd only met Rachel once at Thought Bubble comics festival in Leeds, so it was great getting the chance to talk more. Thanks for meeting up, guys!

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25. codename: comic maker!

Look, my Jampires co-author David O'Connell and I have been out on a heist mission!

The Discover Children's Story Centre in Stratford, northeast London, has a fabulous new exhibition designed by writer-illustrator team Andy Briggs and Peter Mac called SECRET AGENTS. I've always loved London's Cabinet War Rooms, and they've captured a whiff of that sort of atmosphere. And unlike the Cabinet War Rooms, you're allowed to run around and play and dress up and generally muck about.

Today our mission was to bring a drop-in comics workshop - Codename: Comic Maker - to the exhibition. Here was our team of agents: mission mastermind Agent David O'Connell with Gary Northfield, Alex Milway, and yours truly.

Here's Agent O'Connell handling a classic Matrix phonebox situation.

Oh no, I think the evil agents have discovered us, and the phone's not working! RUN, DAVE!

There's all sorts of fabulous stuff to explore, conveniently at kid height. Like this picture safe in the wall. Tip: you can also climb through the fireplace.

We had such gorgeous weather that we relocated outdoors, and then had our pens at the ready! I should add, I also had a There's a Shark in the Bath event, which is why my Secret Agent outfit has a tentacular twist.

Our team drew all sorts of things to order. Here's Dave taking on a Vampire Giraffe. Dave's a great friend and the writer-illustrator of the popular Monster and Chips books, and we have a book coming out together this autumn, called Jampires. (Exciting!)

And we did some Comics Jams, passing the comic around the table so everyone could draw a panel.

Some of the Comics Jams got quite dark and disturbing.

Very dark, indeed.

To lighten things up a bit, here's Alex Milway with his book Pigsticks and Harold, which comes out in May. It has pictures, some comic elements, and very jolly animals. I'm definitely going to get this book for kid friends who love stories but aren't so sure about tackling pages with lots of text.

Here's a result of one of Alex's Drawing Challenges:

Making comics in the sun with my excellent studio mate Gary Northfield (creator of Gary's Garden in The Phoenix Comic and wonderful book The Terrible Tale of the Teenytinysaurs). (Photo by Ben Stephens.)

Dave and I both took the challenge to draw a Vampire Giraffe, and this kid copied them so expertly; they actually looked better in his drawing.

The Discover centre had been lucky enough the previous day to host comic artists Laura Ellen Anderson, Jamie Littler and Richy K Chandler, awesome. Thre's so much fun built right into it. I'm always checking out the magic mirrors. Here's are stretched and squashed Ben Stephens and Discover's Racheal Brasier:

Oh my goodness, and SUCH a cool thing: I thought they'd chucked out all the stuff I'd designed for the Monsterville exhibition, but I spotted this sign over the toilets! I love it that the men's side is 'Beauty'.

And this cupboard room is being put to MUCH better use now:

Before I did my Shark stage event, I did some vocal exercises with my lovely Scholastic publicist, David Sanger:

Big thanks to everyone who came along and drew sharks with me! I got to see some wonderful sharks with loads of personality.

And comics! A few kids really got stuck in making them; it was wonderful to see. This girl used themes from the exhibition as inspiration.

Adam, who was running the tech stuff for my Shark event came with a very appropriate tattoo. Not a shark, but I give him a 9.5 for sharkish effort.

After my event, CBeebies presenter-turned-picture-book-writer Cerrie Burnell led another story session, and it was great to meet her.

Hey look, it's illustrator Guy Parker-Rees! He had been doing a Giraffes Can't Dance event upstairs. Giraffes somehow became a bit of an overall theme for the day.

Big thanks to the Discover team, Dave (for organising the whole Comic Maker part of the day), Gary and Alex on the comics team, and David Sanger for looking after me. If you haven't visited the exhibition yet, it runs until 31 August; details on their website.

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